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Saturday, July 10, 1999 Published at 19:02 GMT 20:02 UK

World: Europe

On the streets of Serbia

Leskovac demonstrations are spontaneous and well attended

By Jonathan Paterson in Leskovac

Every night this week in the town of Leskovac in southern Serbia, near the border with Kosovo, people have taken to the streets in large anti-government protests.

The demonstrations have not been organised by any political group, but are a spontaneous outpouring of anger.

Kosovo: Special Report
On Monday it is said 20,000 people were on out the streets. The numbers have fallen now, but still by the end of the week 2,000 people were standing in the city square demanding changes.

"We couldn't believe in our wildest dreams that so many people could be on the streets," says Maria Nesic, a human rights campaigner.

She says people are motivated by their anger about the war in Kosovo.

Forty-thousand people were drafted into the Yugoslav Army from Leskovac. Official figures say 57 people were killed but Maria does not believe it. She knows someone who was killed and his name did not appear on any list.

"During the war it was forbidden to print death notices, and it was forbidden to put announcements in the papers. What we found out was only through rumours," she says.

Those who do come home have little to return to. "This is a very poor town," she says. "We don't have enough for a decent living. Nothing is working here."

How it all started

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The man who inspired the protests is Ivan Novkovic, a technician at the local television station in Leskovac.

Last Friday much of the town was watching the semi-finals of the European Basketball Championship - Yugoslavia was playing Italy.

At half time the commentary was interrupted and the screen cut to an image of Novkovic reading a statement. He denounced the management of the TV station, and the local city authorities, and called the people of the town to a rally on Monday night.

Twenty-thousand people turned up.

In the middle of the crowd stood Ivan, standing on top of a car shouting into a megaphone, explaining why he has had enough.

'We want Ivan'

On Tuesday Ivan was arrested, and jailed for 30 days for organising an illegal demonstration. That night the people turned on the local police and tried to force their way into the police station. Chanting "We want Ivan" They were beaten back by the police.

Every night at the demonstrations, people have been chanting his name.

On Wednesday the Serbian Renewal Movement, who had previously refused to back street demonstrations, said they would support the people of Leskovac.

Noticeably less people turned up that night. Whistles and jeers greeted the politicans who spoke. "In my opinion it's better to be spontaneous," Maria says. She is worried the politicians have a different agenda.

Back from the war

Among the demonstrators on Wednesday was Nenad Mitrovic. Nenad was drafted during the war, and served on an anti-aircraft battery. They were targetted by Nato planes, a bomb exploded 70 metres from their position. He is still shaken up by it he says and his bottom lip quivers as he speaks.

But his English is excellent. He likes football, although he thinks the Yugoslav team could do better, and prefers the music of Depeche Mode to anything Serbia has to offer.

"I was in the war for four months", he says. "And I would fight again for Serbia, but never again for Milosovic."

Like many people here, he was afraid to speak out, but now? "Never mind," he says. "I'm here because I believe in a better future."

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